When I was thirteen, my parents sent me to Israel for one of those “all good Jewish boys visit to the Holy Land” kind of trips. Sitting on a hot and smelly bus, crammed in with the rest of my jaded peers, I was shuttled from ancient Jewish monument to important historical sight. Fresh from my bar mitzvah, Judaism was little more than a painful obligation.
Religion represented nothing other than a failed promise. I had been told Judaism was this rich, moist chocolate cake – gooey and delicious. It was supposedly filled with mystery and depth. My traditional education, of course, made sure I never got that meal. Instead I was delivered a freeze-dried version of my faith, devoid of any real taste or delight. My religious training was boring, rote and sadly disconnected from anything meaningful. The only passion I ever heard were the monthly lessons on the holocaust. It was “us versus them”. I assumed this was my religion.
It was disappointing and consistent with the experience of my other Jewish friends. I was disconnected from meaning and barren of any understanding of my place in the world of mystery. But in that dry cake there was a small hope. At thirteen I was longing. And though I didn’t know what that meant, I did know I wanted more.
In the most unexpected way, this desire was fully met on one spectacular afternoon.
We were at the Wailing Wall on a Friday. Not knowing what to do, I just closed my eyes and listened to the “dahvening” of the devout--the traditional way Jews pray by rocking back and forth and quietly singing. The intensity of the prayers started to carry me. The sound began to deepen, getting richer and fuller. I felt it taking me further and further into a sense of peace and inner joy. It was one I had never felt before in all my young years. My inner world of doubt was being quickly calmed. My longing recognizing a forgotten need.
Just when the moment seemed to reach a crest, I heard to my right over the praying Jews, the sound of church bells. Then almost immediately I heard to my left, one of the daily calls to prayer from a minaret. A voice came into my head...real and not my own.
"You see," it said. "It is all the same".
I had an immediate image of the gift of our birth--a gold bar representing our connection with God. The bars are often differently wrapped--Christmas, Hanukah, Ramadan, Kwanza--but the gift is always the same.
As a thirteen-year-old boy I never forgot this. It was the most important moment of my “religious” upbringing because a question simply emerged that has served me all these years. Who fights over wrapping paper?